By Rich Jensen
“quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
“Who guards the guardians?”
I’ve seen a number of articles condemning or – inexplicably – defending the Richie Incognito mess in Miami. The latest news is that Incognito felt ‘betrayed and blindsided’ by Martin’s recent actions.
While William F. Lietch has done a credible job explaining the problems with the ‘lockerroom culture’ and Incognito in particular, I’ve been generally dissatisfied with the articles on the subject, largely because the arguments they muster against what went on in the Miami lockerroom can be marshaled just as easily against what Martin did in reporting what went on to Miami management.
Consider: Why are you upset at what happened in Miami? Because it’s wrong. Why is it wrong? Because you just don’t treat other people like that (e.g. racial abuse). Now: Why are you upset about Jonathan Martin’s actions? Because they were wrong. Why were they wrong? Because you don’t do that to a teammate. If you have a problem with someone, you address it with that person directly.
A few more perceptive authors, Lietch in particular, have gone so far as to attack the ethical framework in which the lockerroom operates, but most of these have been, basically, assertions that certain norms are self-evident, when it is quite clear that they are not self-evident to the individuals who are not only violating them, but violating them with a clear conscience.
Furthermore, when you are making an assertion that something is self-evident, then you have only the weight of numbers to refer to, which in various times past would have assured you that the inferiority of blacks, the corrupting influence of Jews and the risks of a Catholic president were all ‘self-evident’ – simply because a large number of people believed these things without thinking about why they believed them.
I do not like arguments that rest on ‘self-evident’ propositions.
There is, however, another argument against the culture that enabled Richie Incognito, and it is, basically, Plato’s question: “Who guards the guardians?”*
If we permit the ‘lockerroom’ to be a self-regulating environment, with rules and norms that are neither to be set nor questioned by those outside the environment, we have created an environment that is ripe for corruption. It is not to say that all team lockerrooms are corrupt, but they are all corruptible, when there is no outside check on the actions of its leaders.
There is no ethical basis for allowing a corruptible environment to exist when steps can be taken to minimize that risk. Further, the corruptibility of the lockerroom weighs against any lockerroom ethics that run counter to a more robust ethical framework. Thus condemnation of Incognito’s inhumane treatment of Martin rests on stronger grounds than condemnation of Martin’s refusal to “man up.” The two arguments do not start from the same place. One rests on a tested moral and ethical framework that has been explored and referred to for millennia with obvious benefits to society in its implementation. The other is based on a self-serving, self-referential ‘code’ that is enforced by abuse.
Some, I know, will argue that sports are ‘different,’ that because of the peculiar nature of their job these men need an unconventional social structure in order to function more efficiently on the field. This is often paired with a description of football that borrows heavily from combat.
It is worth noting that few, if any, professional football players have been treated for PTSD, and that the ‘thousand-yard stare’ which is closely associated with the dehumanizing aspects of warfare just doesn’t exist with football players. Football is a rough game, but the participants are well aware that it is (usually) not a matter of life or death.
And independent of this misplaced talk of ‘warriors,’ the argument that these players need to operate in an environment of their own making in order to function most efficiently is contradicted by the standards which are imposed on surgical staff who work in high-stress environments where focus on one’s own task requires implicit confidence in others to perform their tasks. And, unlike football, surgery is often a matter of life or death.
*The concept is Plato’s (although he attributed to Socrates). This epigrammatic expression, however, is credited to Juvenal.
About the author: Jensen is a tech guy by trade, and a pretty solid amateur pizza chef.